RUMPUS BOOK CLUB EXCERPT: GHOST PEOPLE by Sabrina Orah Mark
An excerpt from The Rumpus Book Club‘s March selection,
HAPPILY by Sabrina Orah Mark
forthcoming from Random House on March 13, 2023
Subscribe by February 15 to the Book Club to receive this title and an invitation to an exclusive conversation with the author via Crowdcast
My son’s teacher pulls me aside to tell me she’s concerned about Noah and the Ghost People.
“Yes,” she says. She is cheerful, though I suspect the main ingredient of her cheer is dread. “Can you encourage Noah to stop bringing them to school?” She is whispering, and she is smiling. She is a close talker and occasionally calls me “girl,” which embarrasses me.
“I don’t know these Ghost People.”
“I don’t think so.”
“He makes them out of the wood chips he finds on the playground. They’re distracting him. He isn’t finishing his sentences.”
“Okay,” I say. “Ghost People.”
She smiles wide. One of her front teeth looks more alive than it should be.
As a toddler, Noah always had a superhero in one hand and a superhero in the other.
Like the world was a tightrope and the men were his balance pole. Now he makes his own men. Out of pipe cleaners and twigs and paper and Q-tips and string and Band-Aids, but mostly wood chips. I eavesdrop. With Noah there, the Ghost People seem to speak a mix of cloud and wind. They are rowdy and kind. They comfort him. If Adam looked like anything in the beginning, I suspect it would be these wood chips, the color of dry earth. He, too, would be speaking in a language from a place that doesn’t quite exist.
But also I know as Noah gets older the world will make it even more difficult for him to carry these People around.
“For god’s sake,” says my mother, “let him carry the freaking Ghost People around. Who is he hurting?”
“Maybe himself?” I say.
“Why himself?” she asks. “How himself?”
“They’re distracting him,” I explain.
“From his sentences.”
“Who the hell cares?” says my mother.
In Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, the first thing Pinocchio does, once his mouth is carved, is laugh at Geppetto. And the first thing he does once his hands are finished is snatch Geppetto’s yellow wig off his head. And the first thing he does once his feet are done is kick Geppetto in the nose, leaving him to feel “more wretched and miserable than he felt in all his life.” If what he is making hurts him, why does Geppetto keep carving? Maybe it’s because before he even began carving, he knew he would call his wooden son Pinocchio. Maybe because Geppetto understands that sometimes the things we create to protect us, to give us good fortune, need first to thin us into a vulnerability where the only thing that can save us are those things that almost erased us. Where the only thing that can bring us back to ourselves is what brought us to the edge of our being in the first place. Or maybe it’s just that Geppetto is lonely.
“What did you do today at school?”
“Nothing,” says Noah.
When I empty his lunch bag, I find three Ghost People inside.
In the world of fairy tales, Geppetto is the mother of all mothers. After jail, beatings, poverty, hunger, and crying, all brought on by his spoiled, lying wooden boy, he still—heartsick—looks for his boy everywhere. They finally unite in the belly of a shark. Pinocchio walks and walks toward a “glow” until he reaches Geppetto, lit by the flame of his last candlestick, sitting at a small dining table eating live minnows. He is now little and old and so white he “might have been made of snow or whipped cream.” Promising to never leave him again, Pinocchio (only a meter tall) swims out of the shark’s mouth, toward the moonlight and the starry sky, with Geppetto on his back. If an old man and a wooden boy ever shared a single birth, it would probably look something like
Eli doesn’t make Ghost People, but his pockets are always filled with sticks and leaves. If I were to keep everything my boys have ever found and brought home, I could easily have enough for a whole tree. Maybe even a small forest. When the shooting happened at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018, all I could think about at first was the name of the synagogue. All I could think about was the Tree. I shut the news off fast.
“What happened to the Tree of Life?” asks Noah.
“Nothing,” I say. “I think a branch fell.”
I haven’t yet read my boys Pinocchio, the story of a boy carved from a tree, and I don’t tell them about the shooting at the Tree of Life, either. I get an email from
our synagogue: “Join Us for Coffee and an Informal Discussion About How We Can Help Our Children Cope With Frightening Situations As Well As Anti-Semitism.” I go to the meeting. At the meeting, one mother maps out the Active Shooter Plan she’s drawn up with the help of her five- and eight-year-olds.
I say I’ve told my boys nothing. Some congregants say I’m keeping my sons in a “bubble.” Another congregant, feeling protective of me, interrupts with the word cocoon. “Cocoon is more like it,” she explains. What she means, I think, is that bubble implies a lack of air, whereas cocoon implies transformation.
“Her boys might not be ready,” says another congregant.
Who is ready? I wonder. At forty-three, I’m not ready. Ready to know we can be burst into smithereens at any
moment? Ready to be hated since forever? An Israeli congregant explains he keeps nothing from his children. He uses the word inoculation. Like if you inject little pieces of horror into your children, they won’t shatter when the horror comes.
I get his point. I shove a piece of cake into my mouth. I shove a piece of cake into my mouth because I can’t shove the entire room into my mouth. Because I can’t shove all the windows, and chairs, and all the parents, and all their fears, and all their children, too. I don’t know how to save anybody.
When I pick Noah up from Sunday school, later that morning, an enormous paper hamsa dangles around his neck by a soft strand of red yarn. The hamsa is brightly colored and beautiful and heartbreaking. “It’s for protection,” says Noah. I watch the other Jewish children spill from the classroom wearing paper hands on their chests, too. “It’s the paper hand of God,” says Noah. He swings the yarn around so now the hamsa is against his back. He is so small, suddenly. He is wearing rain boots,
but I don’t remember it raining that day.
My child, I want to say at the meeting at the synagogue, carries Ghost People around so we’ll be fine. I want to say, I haven’t even read my sons Pinocchio yet. I want to say, How many minutes of all our children’s childhoods are left? Instead, I say, “My children ask me if their Black father was ever a slave. They ask me if they will ever be turned into slaves. They ask me if I would ever be turned into a slave for being their mother. As Black Jewish boys, my children will never be in a bubble. But if there was a bubble big enough, I’d move there in a second.” Everyone gets very quiet. “Tell me where the bubble is. Where’s the bubble?”
In late sixteenth-century Prague, when waves of hatred rose against the Jews again, a story brewed about Rabbi Loew, who made a golem out of prayers and clay, a golem whose job it was to guard the Jews from harm. There are two versions of how the rabbi brought the golem to life. The first is that he inserted the shem, a parchment with God’s name, into the golem’s mouth; the second is that he inscribed the word emet, or “truth,” on the golem’s forehead. Unlike Pinocchio, the golem doesn’t speak. Unlike Pinocchio, the golem doesn’t lie. But he can hear and he can understand.
In a 1969 painting by the surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington entitled The Bath of Rabbi Loew, the rabbi is in his bathtub dreaming up the golem. The rabbi glows white, not unlike Geppetto in the belly of the shark. In the doorway, carrying a water jug, is most likely the golem in a nightgown. A figure wearing a hat shaped like a gigantic teardrop or a black lightbulb stands behind the rabbi. The figure is holding a towel. Surrounding the bath are what look like the letters of an unknown alphabet or the footprints of Noah’s Ghost People. It’s hard to tell.
When the slander about the Jews using the blood of Christian babies in their rituals begins to quiet, Rabbi Loew decides the golem is no longer needed. In one story, the name of God is removed from the golem’s mouth, and he dies. But in another stranger and more beautiful story, a little girl rubs the aleph off his forehead and turns emet into met: “truth” into “death.” Because in Hebrew the only thing standing between truth and death is an aleph. In the Sefer Yetzirah, the oldest and most mysterious of all the cabalistic texts, the aleph is represented by silence, and its “value designation” is “mother.” I wonder what would’ve happened had Geppetto given Pinocchio an aleph. A small one, carved onto the bridge of his nose. Because, ultimately, aren’t silence and truth what Pinocchio is always missing?
Originally, Pinocchio was only fifteen chapters long. And in the last chapter, Pinocchio is hanged. Only at the behest of a pleading editor did Collodi save the boy. At the end of the expanded Pinocchio, the old wooden puppet sits on a chair with its arms dangling, its head bent, and the real boy Pinocchio barely regards it. He does not go to the puppet. Or fix its head. Or knock on its wood for good luck. He doesn’t even have the kindness to speak to it. “How funny I was,” he says, “when I was a puppet . . . and how happy I am now that I am a proper little boy.”
Noah has begun making paper clothes for his Ghost People. It’s winter, after all. I watch him cut out a tiny scarf and realize that I’ve never taught him to pray. I’ve taught him the prayers over the wine and the challah and the candles, but I’ve never taught him to pray. Or maybe praying isn’t taught. Or this is praying. Or praying is keeping the Ghost People warm. The mouthless, earless Ghost People. “Faith” in Hebrew is emunah. It appears in the Bible as “to hold steady,” but also as eman, which means “a nursing father.”
“This one,” says Noah, “has a fever.”
I feel the Ghost Person’s head.
“Is it a fever?” he asks.
“It is,” I say.
He makes for it a paper bed. With a paper blanket. And a crumpled pillow, too. When there is a shooting, and then another shooting, and another, all the politicians’ “thoughts and prayers” are with the families of the victims. “We don’t want your thoughts and prayers,” we say. We say this, of course, because it’s the thoughts and prayers of men and women we suspect have (like Pinocchio) an aleph missing. We say this because after each shooting, it’s already too late. The bubble has popped, and the Ghost People are already being buried.
My favorite drawing of Pinocchio appears in Edward Carey’s The Swallowed Man, because in it Pinocchio’s nose is a branch. The forking branch is the aleph. Right in the middle of his face, the branch is the silence and the mother. It is Pinocchio’s roots. Carey’s depiction of Pinocchio brings him closer to the golem than he’s ever been. Also, the branch looks exactly like the branch I lied to my sons about. Like the branch that never fell from the Tree of Life. “What happened to the Tree of Life?” asks Noah. “I think a branch fell.”
I look at my favorite of Noah’s Ghost People and think about Rilke. “It remained silent,” he wrote in his heart-stopping essay, “On the Wax Dolls of Lotte Pritzel,” “not because it felt superior, but silent because this was its established form of evasion and because it was made of useless and absolutely unresponsive material. It was silent, and the idea did not even occur to it that this silence must confer considerable importance on it in a world where destiny and indeed God himself have become famous mainly by not speaking to us.”
I kiss the Ghost Person on the head. “What’s your name?” I ask.
“It’s okay,” I say. “I think I know.”
I don’t know how to protect my sons. I wear their names around my neck on a thin gold chain. Sometimes I lie to them. Sometimes I say nothing. Sometimes I have to tell them that people do terrible things. Every day I send them out into the world, and they come home with rocks and twigs and wood chips and acorns and dead bugs in their pockets. It’s been getting colder and colder here. If I could, would I have a golem sit in the corner of my kitchen, follow my boys to school, accompany us to synagogue, and stand at the door?
I look around my house. Maybe the golem is already here. “Hello, hello?”
Maybe my house is the golem. And my neighbor’s house, too. And the synagogue is the golem and the school is the golem. Maybe all the buildings in our town are the golem. Or maybe the town is the golem. Or the country, or maybe the whole earth is the golem. Here we are. Inside the golem. Knock, knock. Who’s there? It’s us. Us who? Knock, knock. Who’s there? It’s us. Us who? Knock, knock. Who’s there. It’s us. Us who?
Copyright © 2023 by Sabrina Orah Mark. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.